Hold Steady struggle with consistency

The Hold Steady have always toed a thin line between poetry and novelty. Craig Finn’s perpetually buzzed Hemingway-meets-Joyce-in-a-drunken-brawl persona and lyrics took them from anthemic bar rockers (think The Jeff Healey Band in the over-the-top Patrick Swayze spectacle “Road House”) toward genre fiction prose spread over Replacements-style power chords. But many of the most beautiful moments were when these two attributes came together, when light met heavy, when citrus met liquor. These moments came to define the band in their breakout Separation Sunday and became the shining moments of 2007’s Boys and Girls In America.

For example, eight seconds into Boys and Girls In America’s introductory track, “Stuck Between Stations,” when the screaming guitar chords meet the pulsating drum beat and both just take off together, you know you’re in for a barn burner. But then Finn’s voice enters and the music concedes to his Kerouac-saturated pleas for the boys and girls in America that set the tone for an entire album, creating a musical marriage consummated in that grimey alleyway between that used book store and dive bar in your nearest college town, in which buildings fight so hard for space they eventually overtake the alleyway and the chaos in the collision becomes the sound.

These moments feel few and far between on Stay Positive. This is not to say they don’t exist. The album’s title track is an anthem-meets-anecdote Hold Steady special, based between desperately holding onto a scene and knowing there’s nothing left there to hold onto. But it seems as though most times, when the band meets a fork in the road on Stay Positive, they veer either left (into self-reflective bangers like opener “Constructive Summer”) or right (into subdued, lyrically-based drug ballads like “One for the Cutters”). This isn’t to say it doesn’t create some musically interesting moments. The harpsichord on “Cutters” creates a carnival feel in which Finn narrates a townie tale of terror. But less precise lines like “When one townie falls in the forest/Can anyone hear it” seem to leave the song ultimately gasping for air.

And while “Constructive Summer” is arguably the most powerful song the band has created yet, its self-referential nature (“Me and my friends are like, the drums on ‘Lust for Life’/We pound it out on fourtops, our songs are sing-along songs) and multitude of shout-back choruses makes it seem as though Finn and the boys are crafting songs specifically for their famed live shows rather than this album. Admittedly, there are few cooler instances than when Finn’s second take on “Me and my friends are like” is followed with a piercing “double whiskey, coke, no ice.” And it’s possible that “Raise a toast to St. Joe Strummer/Think he might have been our only decent teacher” is probably the best two-line summary of Finn’s upbringing we’ll ever be privy to.

“Navy Sheets” and “Joke About Jamaica” sound sonically closer to the electro-feel of Finn’s old project Lifter Puller than any Hold Steady work has thus far. But Charlemagne and Hollie are noticeably absent from this album, and with them some of the linked motifs that intricately hold the bands past efforts together.

If anything links Stay Positive, it’s the self-aware nature (this time not of Finn’s own band, like on the album kick-off, but his character’s) of the lifestyle Finn has been championing in his songs for years: Staying positive and looking for the happy ending on tracks like “Lord, I’m Discouraged” is not getting the girl, but merely hoping she stays alive through the bumps and bruises. Make no mistake — at its best this is a thrilling thrash-through-chords that leave those Springsteen comparisons in the dust. It’s also a slice of narrative perspective we are only blessed with a few times each musical generation. But the sparseness with which these moments come together makes their formerly defining dissonance a death just as worthy of prayers as sweet Charlemagne.

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